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Need smaller aims in Afghanistan

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Posted: Friday, September 4, 2009 12:22 pm | Updated: 1:16 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Taylor Jones: It’s hard to “clear, hold and build” piles of rubble punctuated by poppy fields. Why re-enact the Charge of the Light Brigade? 

The Obama administration is mired in the swamp of health care reform. Perhaps it's time to change the subject? Time to stand up and shout, "It's Afghanistan, stupid!"

Will Afghanistan be Barack Obama's Vietnam? No. It will be his ... Afghanistan. And that's trouble enough! First, a bit of background:

The Reagan administration liked to crow about how they'd won the Cold War. Their secret weapon? Ronald Reagan had bankrupted the Soviet empire into oblivion.

I never entirely bought this argument. I thought Mikhail Gorbachev deserved equal credit. He’d seen the graffiti on the (Berlin) wall. By the time Gorby climbed to the peak of the Politburo, he knew that the Soviet Union was kaput. The Soviets barely had enough clunky dial telephones and rabbit-eared TVs to go around, while the West was embarking on the Information Age. Gorbachev's mission was to guide Mother Russia to a "soft landing," where she might reform herself and join the ranks of respectable, modern nations.

But I do believe that Reagan’s policy of bankrupting the Soviet Union was a huge help. The Pentagon upped the ante, exponentially, when it came to military spending. We engaged the Soviet Union in proxy wars around the world. We invaded tiny Grenada, just to keep the Soviets form landing on an airstrip. We threatened the Kremlin with the Big Kahuna of missile defense -- the "Star Wars" program. And we poured zillions of dollars into Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen roust the Red Army from every pile of rubble.

In short, the U.S. forced the U.S.S.R. to spend like drunken sailors to prop up their sclerotic regime. We spent like drunken sailors ourselves, but we could better afford the tab. Reagan & Co. snickered as the U.S.S.R. literally fell on its rusty swords. The mighty Red Army was humiliated in Afghanistan, driven from the unforgiving dust and rocks, hungry and unpaid, by a ragtag bunch of gnarly peasants wearing sneakers and ... rags!

Now, two decades later, it looks as though much of the world is snickering at us. The Chinese. The Iranians. Many in the European Union. And, most especially, the Russians. Of course, Vladimir Putin tries to keep a poker face at all times. But I’ve detected a wry smile gracing the prime minister’s face when he practices judo. Or strips to the waist and flexes his pecs in the great Siberian outdoors.

And no wonder! We're as knee-deep in the Big Dusty as the Soviet Union was. We've got a vastly superior military, of course. And we actually pay our soldiers. But we're still stuck, and nobody knows how to win or how to get out, honorably or otherwise. And we spend, spend, spend! Soviet history could have been instructive in this regard. British history, too.

But isn't Afghanistan critical to the war on terror? Isn't Afghanistan's security vital to our own? All true -- and therein lies the conundrum. Problem is, we're in a race for hearts and minds with the Taliban. We can build a nice road that leads to a spanking, new school house outside Kabul. The Taliban can assemble kids in a bombed-out police station, feed them a cup of lamb and rice, and call it a Madrassa.

Meanwhile, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has grown rather sick of us, and we of him. His grand, green cape is in tatters, and he might not survive a second round of voting. Abdullah Abdullah might offer a pleasant change, briefly. But we'll tire of each other, too, in short order. Afghan citizens will continue to gripe about corruption and the lack of basic services, and we'll wring our hands about opium trafficking and women trapped in burkas. Daily life will change at a glacial pace.

So, what to do?

It does strike me that our Predator drones are having success tracking down and whacking senior members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And keeping the rest hunkered down. True, Pakistan gets mad whenever a drone whizzes over its border and hits a terrorist cell in Waziristan. But Pakistan has a problem with anger management, in general.

Still, the Predators keep finding their targets. Seems to be more effective, and less expensive (in blood and treasure), than full-scale warfare or nation-building in Afghanistan. It’s hard to “clear, hold and build” piles of rubble punctuated by poppy fields. Why re-enact the Charge of the Light Brigade?

Just maybe, in dealing with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, less can be more?

--

Taylor Jones is a cartoonist and caricaturist based on Staten Island, N.Y., where he spends his free time fidgeting, breeding North American giant silk moths, vacuuming water out of his basement, and pretending to be a good dad.

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